styled in the manner of an 18th century riding coat or redingote, with high collar, narrow waist and flaring skirt, sewn of tanned caribou hide, very finely painted in red, cream, and black pigments, the front and back decorated with tapering panels enclosing stylized symbols, possibly representing caribou, composed of triangles flanked by paired incurves, alternating with panels of graduated stripes, the arms, with bands of trapezoidal designs, the hemline, with a zigzag band surmounted by circular medallions, and rows of tiny circles in alternating colors, the whole with elaborate cross-hatched designs.
French Private Collection
Sold Narbonne, France
Acquired by the present owner from the above
A very close comparable for this coat, likely by the same hand, can be found in the British Museum, reference Am1921,1014.112. For a discussion of Naskapi coats see JCH King, Thunderbird and Lighting, British Museum Publications, 1982, p. 39: "The Naskapi of Quebec and Labrador lived by hunting caribou, and used their skins for making tents and clothing....In the summer they wore painted coats...Originally the coats took the form of a parka with no front opening; later the European style of coat was copied from traders, who also would have supplied the iron tools which permitted the precise cutting and tailoring of the arms and shoulders. The supreme significance of the caribou hunt may have been reflected in the designs painted on the coats, possibly representing caribou antlers and trees. The spirits associated with the caribou were thought to take note of the painted designs and to assist the hunter in his all-important quest for food."
For further discussion of Naskapi coats and for a comparable in the Royal Ontario Museum see Janet C. Berlo and Ruth B. Philips, Native North American Art, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 144-146: "The Western tendency to separate utilitarian from artistic concerns, and acts of aesthetic self-expression from those of ritual observance, hinders an understanding of the inextricable interconnectedness of these factors in the creation and visual elaboration of Sub-arctic clothing. Scholars who study the Western Sub-arctic have stressed the protective function of clothing, not just against weather or mosquitoes, but also as a strategy for enhancing an individual's confidence and communicative power in relation to the game he sought. For some Sub-arctic peoples, too, the proper ritual-artistic treatment of a hide ensured its retention of some of the animal's own abilities. As an extension of this principal, there is evidence from the Dene that, over time, the wearer's powers came to permeate his or her clothing and could be transferred with the garment to another wearer....Autumn is the also the time of the caribou hunt when, as we will see, ornamented clothing had ritual importance....The distinctive painting style used by the Labrador Innu in the early contact period features sense bands of parallel lines and the graceful, bilaterally symmetrical scroll motifs that anthropologist Frank Speck termed "double curves." Artists used tools made of bone or antler, some of which had multiple prongs that allowed the artist to produce sets of evenly spaced parallel lines. In a famous study carried out during the 1930s Speck reported Innu hunters' belief that, "animals prefer to be killed by hunters whose clothing is decorated with designs" and that decoration also pleased the hunter's own inner "soul-spirit." In singing to game animals the hunter would say, "you and I wear the same covering and have the same mind and spiritual strength." An Innu woman's painstaking painting of caribou-skin summer coat was thus a ritual gesture of respect to the animal spirits and helped to ensure their continued co-operation.
The fitted cut and flared skirt of the Innu hunters' coats...is distinctive...Dorothy Burnham has recently confirmed the theory that this cut was influenced by gifts of French clothing made to Native people early in the contact period...Most importantly, however, her analysis reveals the probable symbolic significance of the triangular gusset inserted into the back of the skirt, a feature which serves no functional purpose..."This gusset," Burnham argues, "which is shaped like a mountain peak, was the symbolic centre of the coat's power and...represents the Magical Mountain where the Lord of the Caribou lived and from the fastnesses of which the caribou were released to give themselves to the hunter.""
For other examples also see Eva Fognell, Art of the American Indians, The Thaw Collection, The Fenimore Art Museum, 2010, p. 43.
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